Warning Raised about Water Quality in Federal Building Child Care Centers


PBS has found lead and/or copper levels above EPA standards in some GSA childcare centers that have been closed due to the pandemic. Image: Vyaseleva Elena/Shutterstock.com

The inspector general at the GSA issued a warning about the quality of water in child care centers in federal buildings, saying the agency’s Public Buildings Service “did not effectively test for water contamination prior to reopening” centers that were temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

“Due to extended periods of limited or no occupancy, water in these facilities may have become stagnant, which presents a risk for elevated levels of hazardous contaminants like lead and copper metals and Legionella bacteria. Without proper testing, PBS cannot ensure that children or staff at the child care centers have access to safe drinking water,” an “alert memorandum” to GSA management says.

It says that due to the pandemic, 84 of the 92 centers in GSA-controlled buildings—which provide care for some 7,000 children–closed temporarily and that all but 10 of those have since reopened.

It notes that CDC guidance states that that plumbing systems in facilities such as child care centers and schools should be checked for hazards before reopening after a prolonged period of building inactivity. Reductions in normal water use can result in water stagnation, it says, which increases the risk of corrosion in the plumbing systems that in turn can “trigger the release of lead and copper into the facility’s drinking water.”

It said that while PBS requires proactive testing for both lead and copper in GSA child care centers at least every three years and requires remediation if levels exceed EPA standards, the “agency did not conduct water testing before reopening 71 of the 74 child care centers (96 percent), including in child care centers that previously reported elevated levels of contaminants.”

It said that the PBS has since tested water in 38 of those 71—in three cases finding lead and/or copper levels above the EPA standards—and that even in those cases the testing “has not been comprehensive” because none were tested to identify potential contamination from Legionella bacteria, which can grow “when hot water stagnates for too long.”

“Children and staff at the child care center could subsequently be exposed to Legionella through inhaling mists from water fountains or running faucets. Because of these risks, a comprehensive water testing program for the reopened child care centers should include testing for Legionella bacteria,” it said.

The report further said that GSA management’s initial responses to its recommendations “contain misleading and incomplete information” including giving “the misleading impression that it does not bear responsibility for water quality in its buildings.” While the GSA pointed out that it had flushed water lines, it did not show that it had followed CDC- and EPA-approved procedures, the IG said–and in any case the PBS’s own guidance “was applied inconsistently and not fully followed.”

And while the GSA stressed that its policy of testing for lead and copper every three years exceeds federal standards, the IG said the agency had not done so at 57 of the 92 centers.

“Therefore, we reaffirm our position that PBS did not effectively test for water contamination prior to reopening GSA child care centers that were closed during the pandemic. Without proper testing, PBS cannot ensure that children or staff at the child care centers have access to safe drinking water,” the report said.

The report is the latest in a series from the IG raising safety concerns about child care centers in GSA-controlled space. A 2020 report found that PBS personnel did not have a clear understanding of the fire and other safety requirements in buildings hosting centers, and a report earlier this year on safety hazards in federal buildings in general cited one—whose identity was redacted—containing a lab with “chemical storage areas that house multiple flammable substances” several stories above a center.

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See also,

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2022 Federal Employees Handbook

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